Thoughts on player choices

So, the other week, I made an impulse buy on the PSN and picked up The Awakened Fate Ultimatum on sale for $20. I had a ton of misgivings about the game (which boil down to don’t buy it, it’s not very good), but I ran into one section that sucked all desire for me to play the game, despite the fact that I’d plonked down $20 for it.

Don't buy this game, it sucks.

Don’t buy this game, it sucks.

Ultimatum makes somewhat of a big deal about how player choices effect the storyline. The implication was that these would be kind of a big deal. This is an easy sell to me: I LOVE games like this, where there are different branching paths that give you tough choices. Most JRPG’s aren’t really big on offering players significant divergent choices.

The background: you are a typical Japanese student who’s been turned into a deadly weapon for angels, because reasons. Demons attacked (and slaughtered many of) the angels. You managed to capture the demon commander. You go through his head with magic to find out if he knows anything, but he doesn’t have valuable intel. The Angels are losing the war and don’t have the resources to take prisoners. The demon is an unrepentant killer.

Your options are, “let him go” and “kill him”.

Now, I’m not decrying the binary nature of this choice. A game can only have so many decisions to pick from. Nor am I angry at the lack of a middle: the narrative establishes that the Angels are really strapped. The problem is what happens when you elect to kill him: your character decides he can’t do it, and the bad guy escapes and ends up killing an Angel as he escapes, which your character guilt trips over.

My reaction to that scene

My reaction to that scene

It’s seriously hard to express how much this pissed me off. This is bad game design 101.

It’s no more of a choice than Dragon Quest’s infamous “BUT THOU MUST” from the NES era of the late 80’s/early 90’s. Needless to say, I expect significantly better writing from games that come out 25+ years later, particularly ones that purport  to have player choices make a big deal in the storyline.

So why did this one piss me off more than the usual false choices other games present?
1) My decision was immediately negated by the game
Obviously.

2) The game touted itself as having big important decisions.
I believe in truth in advertisement.

3) It was my CHARACTER who negated the decision
This is the real sore point of the choice. It would be understandable if my character was physically incapable of taking out the demon, or some bizarre contrivance had kept my character from carrying out my instructions. I would at least blame the GAME for not carrying out my orders, instead of the character. That’s a problem. The character is, at heart, an Avatar for the player. They are the viewpoint character, how I control the game. Having them decide to revolt like that takes me out of the narrative and shatters any illusions I have about actually being able to have any control over the game.

4) The main character constantly goes on about what a jerk he is because he didn’t kill the demon.
A really good choice makes you doubt over your decisions, but the only decision I doubted was buying the damned game. It takes REAL skill to make a player guilty for a choice they never really had. Incidentally, Spec:Ops the line does this brilliantly, as well as occasionally convincing you that you never had a choice… when you actually did.

But I had no choice here. I was taken away from the narrative because my character did not do what I wanted them to. And this is constantly underlined every time the main character goes down the whole guilt thing. It just makes me angry at the main character (who might as well be named Shinji) instead of angry at myself and doubting my own choices.

And the only choice I made that made me angry at myself was buying this game.

Disclaimer: This game has a ton of flaws: bad voice acting, cliched writing and dialogue, derivative game play that would have been stale 20 years ago, game play completely divorced from the narrative, a shallow advancement system and the fact that it’s ludicrously easy. The only reason I kept playing it was the sunk costs fallacy and because I was looking forward to some sweeping decisions.

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